In One Fine Morning, Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest feature, new and old love are paired together in a stunning, strange pattern that throws into question the inflexibility of loyalty and love. Sandra (Léa Seydoux) is left caring for her ailing father (Pascal Greggory) who, despite his academic ability and intellectual prowess, is incapable of living alone in his old age. At the same time, she falls for an old flame, now married and with his own family. It is a stirring, romantic drama, prickly and deceptively hard to watch. Hansen-Løve’s jagged, matter-of-fact understanding of commitment is one that can cut the viewer, tearing through people’s unthinking desire for undying, lifelong partnership. This interrogation is born out of a heightened sensitivity to time and its exacting cost.
Hansen-Løve’s meandering focus belies a career-spanning discomfort with time. She shoots long scenes of her characters padding around the worn floorboards of their Parisian apartments, holding the camera steady as they make coffee. Peruse their bookshelves. In reality, she is buying time, aware that these moments of mundanity are really bursts of control, of attempting to maintain this moment for as long as possible. About halfway through her 2009 film The Father of My Children, Grégoire’s (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) life is imploding in a series of increasingly dramatic financial constraints. In the scope of the film, he is days away from taking his own life, shown sitting in his office, silent and slouched in his chair with an ever-present cigarette dangling from his hand. But the camera follows his daughter Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing), who glides through the house, watering the plants that are positioned along each windowsill, throwing the sunlight into new patterns. She pleasantly chats to her sisters, giving the audience a momentary break from the onslaught of Grégoire’s chaos, a moment for us to slip away and watch, rather than feel, time.
The window is familiar framing for Hansen-Løve, who wields each pane with care and composure through her films, letting them inform the way her characters are allowed to see their lives, giving them distance from their decisions. In Goodbye, First Love, Camille (Lola Créton) and Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky) retreat to his cottage in Marseilles, an attempt to casually rekindle their relationship that is eventually aborted. Throughout the trip she peers out the window, watching him, watching the garden, watching the rolling hills beyond, scared to step out and face what makes this dynamic so fraught.
If windows give her characters a framework to view their options, literal space to momentarily escape the suffocating confines of time, the brick wall that Annette (Marie-Christine Friedrich) grabs when confronted with Victor’s (Paul Blain) plea for forgiveness in All Is Forgiven serves to represent the inflexibility of time. She pauses, swallowing back tears, positioning her body to face the worn red bricks of the rehab center. “I can’t,” she admits. Their relationship is not illuminated by the white light held by tall windows. It is cold and inflexible, set in stone.
As someone interested in tracking the way time moves, Hansen-Løve almost always features children in crucial roles. She pays close attention to the way time shapes them, how they respond to its movement, the memories they grasp. This lens is most clearly applied to her first feature, All Is Forgiven which follows Pamela (Victoire and Constance Rousseau) through the aftermath of her parents’ split. The adoring, impenetrable child has grown into a quiet teenager with gaps in her memory she can’t account for. “Paris was a dark two-room apartment on the first floor,” Victor (Paul Blain) explains to Pamela over dinner. “I imagined something really big,” Pamela remarks in surprise, “Funny how memory distorts things.”
Hansen-Løve’s attitude towards people’s imperfect memory and the non-linear maturation from childhood to adulthood is aptly summarized with the recitation of Robert Creeley’s “The Rhythm” which closes her most personal directing venture, Eden. Paul (Félix de Givry) is lying on his bed, engulfed in the quiet—the silence of the morning after the party—as the poem rolls across the screen:
“The little children grow only to old men. / The grass dries, / the force goes. / But is met by another…”
At this point in the film, Paul has grown from a careless young DJ (loosely based on Hansen-Løve’s own brother) to an adult who has had to fall apart and recenter his ambitions. The film has chronicled this through a series of patternless time jumps. Brief snippets of his life are captured and then lost, mimicking the sporadic glare of the club lights. By the end, he has sacrificed his DJ career to pursue something more lucrative, collapsing into the future he has been avoiding. But the film doesn’t end there. It gives the audience a moment to invest in his new future, to follow him as he attends his evening classes; “the force goes. / But is met by another…”
Everything is stamped with an expiry date, but the constant movement of the clock means things will swiftly be reassembled, redirected into new patterns. Hansen-Løve’s needle drops embody this, favoring a bustling soundtrack over a minimal score that could stretch on indefinitely. There is a finiteness to songs, capturing feelings through the limited scope of a few minutes. Eden typifies this with a series of songs rolling into one another of varied speed and sound, reflecting Paul’s fractured relationship to time. Conversely, Goodbye, First Love features multiple uses of “The Water” by Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling, a loose song that feels methodical in its reiteration of a single line: “the water sustains me without even trying.” It’s a plea that reverberates through the film, a prayer that holds Camille in the wake of her first love. Even when you wish time could stop, it promises to continue rolling forward.
Hansen-Løve’s films hold space for a hyper-realistic understanding of time, one which sees parents die and marriages end. Yet she has still collected her own set of cinematic tools to reflect time’s internal movement, how it rearranges us and forces us to confront the things we don’t want to admit. At the end of Bergman Island, Hansen-Løve’s story of married filmmakers who retreat to Ingmar Bergman’s cottage on Fårö island for inspiration, Chris (Vicky Krieps) is seen hanging out the window of the windmill greeting her family, she races towards them, peering at Tony (Tim Roth) over her child’s shoulder. It is unclear where their relationship stands, what happened to either of the projects they were working on, but for a moment they are granted a reprieve—a moment of clarity within a landscape preserved in time. Through this glance we are reminded that Hansen-Løve sees time as a necessary force, something punishing but also human, binding us to the earth, to each other, to a moment.
London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.